Lisa Mullins talks with author Simon Winchester about his new book, “Atlantic: Great Seat Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories”. Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins, and this is ‘The World.’ Simon Winchester’s new book is called ‘Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.’ Simon Winchester, nice to have you with us.
SIMON WINCHESTER: Thanks a lot.
MULLINS: Now, over the past year or so, you were researching this book and you checked in with us from far-flung watery places, and we’d like to stroll down the watery memory lane right now.
WINCHESTER: This is Simon Winchester, and I’m in Bermuda. I’m at a fish merchant now, and I’m going to ask him to tell me what these various fish are. I am huddled behind the sand dune on what is undeniably the most inhospitable, lethal and feared coastline. I am currently in Iceland, standing on a precipitous ledge between two . . . There is a seal behind me. Hello. What do you want? Ah, he breathes at me, fiercely. He wants to bite me.
MULLINS: Simon, the things you do for the reporting in this book, and speaking to the world from far-flung places. The seal didn’t bite you, did he?
WINCHESTER: Not as I recall, although they are pretty menacing. That was in South Georgia, and they look timid little creatures, but when you pass close to them, they do this strange little rush at you and bare their little teeth. And it’s, for a few moments, quite unsettling.
MULLINS: Well, it’s nice to be able to get it on tape. Thank you for continuing to roll tape during that. But all of these stories and the places that you visited were in service of this book about the Atlantic Ocean. Why take on the history of an entire ocean, specifically the Atlantic?
WINCHESTER: It really was born out of a commercial failure of a book I wrote about 20 years ago when I was living in Hong Kong. Someone told me that the ocean of the future was the Pacific, and so I wrote a book which was all about the future, but what I found was sorely missing, was the past. And then I thought — I was sort of licking my wounds, thinking why didn’t that book work — and I thought, well, basically, you fathead, you chose the wrong ocean. And the ocean that really is intimately involved with Western civilization and modern history is the Atlantic. And a couple of hundred thousand years that mankind has been involved in the ocean is what really this book is all about. And yet, our discovery of it as an ocean, is only been 500 years. I mean it’s a trivial time since Amerigo Vespucci first realized that the Americas were a continent, and that therefore there must be an ocean between the European and African continents and this newly discovered American continent. That is only 500 years and yet such a lot of history and such a lot of human events have been packed into those five centuries. And that is what the book is really about.
MULLINS: Well the book is packed with them, in fact. And I wonder if you could tell us perhaps about some of the most inaccessible places that you went to, to find out about the hidden history of the Atlantic.
WINCHESTER: Well, one of the places I found very moving and interesting was the Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic, between the Shetland and Iceland. And there, essentially it’s the last stronghold, if you like, of the Viking people and the language that’s spoken in these 18 islands that are a possession of Denmark. Faroese is really the last relic of the living Viking language. But I think the important thing that stems from an interest in the Vikings is a reminder that it was a Viking or a Norwegian that first reached North America. I mean school children are taught that it was Christopher Columbus, but he wasn’t the first. The first was 491 years before that. And that was Leif Erikson. We thought we knew a bit about Leif Erikson, but no one could find out for a long time where he landed. Well, in 1960, they discovered this settlement in the northern part of Newfoundland, where there had been a little Viking colony. And not only a little colony, but the first European child to be born in North America was conceived and born in this little settlement, a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. And the little boy was called Snorri Falfinsson [SP, Karlsefnisson on other web sources]. And like all the rest of these chaps who settled there, they didn’t much like it. It was cold and wet. So they legged it back home, and of course, that’s the big difference about Columbus, is that following Columbus, people settled in the much warmer parts of the American continent. But one of the things I’m hoping that this book will sort of remind people Columbus wasn’t the first, Erikson was.
MULLINS: It struck me in reading this book that probably in the short time it took you to research and write this book, the size of the Atlantic itself must have morphed.
WINCHESTER: Yes, indeed, although not a huge amount. I think I can honestly say that from the time that we last talked from one of these places to the time I delivered the book to the publisher, the Atlantic was about two and a half inches wider. It is spreading and is changing. And that presages the rather curious scenario that mathematical modelers have worked out is what’s going to happen in the configuration of the Atlantic over the next 170 odd million years. What’s going to happen is, that South America is going to move eastwards, pass south of South Africa, and then will move northwards and hit Singapore. And when that happens, all of the water that exists between Europe and North America and between Africa and South America will be squeezed out, and the Atlantic will cease to exist.
MULLINS: Simon, of all the extraordinary places you went to compile this book about the Atlantic, did you have one in particular that stays with you?
WINCHESTER: I think the island of St. Helena, which is the little British possession about 1000 miles west of Angola. That’s of course where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo. That remains for me such a quintessentially Atlantic island. The capitol town is unchanged. It’s all Regency architecture. There’s a little castle. There’s a little cathedral. There’s a little courthouse. All in beautiful pastel colors, and it’s adorned with anchors and dolphins and all the motifs of the sea. When you sail there and see this exquisite little gem of a town in the absolutely limitless ocean, your heart leaps. And that, for all of the other drama of the Atlantic and the Atlantic coasts, is the prettiest, most charming homage to the Atlantic Ocean I have ever seen.
MULLINS: Simon Winchester’s book ‘Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.’ You can find a link to all the reports he filed for us while researching the book“ and there are some great photos too all on our website at the theworld.org. Simon, nice to talk to you.
WINCHESTER: Thanks very much.
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